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Army lands in row over Baba

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OUR CORRESPONDENT   |   Gangtok   |   Published 03.01.07, 12:00 AM

Gangtok, Jan. 3: The Indian Army’s decision not to allow offerings and donations at Baba Harbhajan Singh Mandir near Nathu-la has provoked angry response from devotees.

“The decision will hurt the sentiments of those who go there to offer prayers,” said Sunil Periwal, a businessman from Gangtok, after an unfulfilling visit to the temple yesterday.

Baba Mandir, located on the road to Kupup near Nathu-la in East Sikkim, is a popular tourist destination-cum-pilgrim centre for its association with the legend of Harbhajan Singh, a soldier of the 23rd Punjab Regiment who died while on duty in the late 60s. It is widely believed that even after his death, Baba continued to guard the border at night and look after the men on patrol. At present an honorary captain on extension (he is past the retirement age), Baba continues to feature on the payroll of the army, and is even granted annual leave from September to November.

The temple is maintained by the Indian Army, which has a substantial presence in the area located close to the Chinese border. Devotees have even suggested that the army hand over the responsibility to a managing committee comprising civilians, the kind of arrangement that exists in Hanuman tok, another temple located above Gangtok.

Though the ban has reportedly been in place since last week, no official explanation has been forthcoming from the army as to why the decision was taken. When The Telegraph contacted senior army officers posted in the area, they refused to comment on the matter but admitted that the orders had come from highest ranks.

Meanwhile, even the weekly bhandara (feast), normally held on Tuesdays and Sundays, has been stopped.

One possible reason behind the decision is the legal suit filed in a Punjab court in September last year by one Pyare Singh, a former subedar in the Indian Army and a close relative of Baba. Singh accused the army of propagating superstitious belief among the public by treating Baba like a person who is alive. He reported that even now two army jawans are deputed to accompany Baba to his hometown in Punjab, while special vehicles are hired to take him to the New Jalpaiguri station and train reservations are made for the onward and return journeys.

The court has asked the army to respond to the charges.

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